The Women Who Opposed Hitler And Why They Were Forgotten

Many women in Munich were active in the resistance against the Nazis, but hardly anyone knows their names today. Traditional gender roles are partly to blame.

Centa Herker-Beimler with stepdaughter Rosi Beimler-Schober (left) and her husband Rudi (1985).
Centa Herker-Beimler with stepdaughter Rosi Beimler-Schober (left) and her husband Rudi (1985).
Jakob Wetzel

MUNICH — Centa Herker-Beimler never let anyone intimidate her. As a communist in Munich during the 1920s, at age 17 she had already clashed with the Nazis. In the spring of 1933, when she was 24, she handed out leaflets against the regime. It was an illegal activity for which the Nazis locked her up for almost four years, first in Stadelheim, then in the Moringen concentration camp, until her husband, Communist Party official Hans Beimler, fell in Spain fighting against Franco. The widow remained on the Gestapo's watchlist. After Georg Elser's failed assassination of Hitler in 1939, she was imprisoned for four weeks. Nevertheless, she returned to the resistance a little later.

In 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Herker-Beimler decided to go back to the resistance. The communists in Munich avoided her because they did not want to be targeted by the Gestapo; so she went to Augsburg to meet new contacts and build an anti-fascist group. She did not succeed, as the Nazis detained her for another seven months until her employer got her released. In 1943 she decided to help forced laborers in coal mines in Penzberg. After the war, she fell silent. She did not talk much about the fight against the Nazis until much later.

Centa Herker-Beimler is one of many women who resisted Nazism in Munich, but hardly anyone knows her name today. There were women like Lotte Branz who smuggled persecuted people abroad and brought back manuscripts by members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in exile, or women like Paula Frieb, who hid opponents of the regime and sent weapons and news from foreign radio stations to those fighting in the resistance. There were women like Margot Linsert who copied and distributed leaflets and in whose grocery store in Laim members of the International Socialist Combat League would meet. And there were those like Marie-Luise Schultze-Jahn, who tried to continue the work of the "White Rose" student resistance movement, after the founders of the group were executed in 1943. The list could go on for pages, but apart from Sophie Scholl, who is still known as the face of the "White Rose", the women who fought Hitler are largely forgotten today.


Sophie Scholl

Women were just as active as men in the resistance against the Nazi regime. Women were rarely assassins, and they were not in a position to stage a plot, like the officers who conspired to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944. However, armed action "plays a negligible role anyway" in the history of the German resistance, says Jürgen Zarusky, historian at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. Starting in 1933, the Nazis successfully destroyed all leftist organizations. In most cases, resistance meant distributing propaganda — and women, as well as men, took part in it.

There are several reasons why women have been left behind in memory, says Barbara Distel, the former head of the Dachau concentration camp memorial site. She has personally met several women from the resistance. Over the years, most of the public's interest was aimed at the July 20 plot and the "White Rose" movement, because few noticeable acts of resistance seemingly took place after those. It was only thanks to the women's movement that the women members of the resistance came back into focus.

On top of that, the number of women in the resistance was relatively low overall, says Distel. There are no reliable statistics for the German Reich in general nor specifically for Munich, says Jürgen Zarusky. But by looking at the Nazi trials for "preparation for high treason", the quota of women in the resistance was less than ten percent.

In addition, according to Zarusky, women were often politically left-wing — so they did not fit into the West German culture of remembrance. Although the resistance carried out by the workers' movement was discussed in the 1970s and 1980s, it was never really recognized. It is quite revealing, for example, to see who appears on the resistance monument that the Bavarian government unveiled in 1996. The "White Rose" is mentioned on the black stone, as well as the group of officers who worked on the July 20th plot. There is also the name of a farmer who was executed for listening to enemy stations. Representatives from the workers' movement were left out — despite protests — and the names of many women within that.

Women resistance fighters were confined to traditional gender roles.

In addition, the women from the resistance were not necessarily feminists. It was not the Nazi misogynous approach that drove them to the opposition. Women resistance fighters, like other women, were confined to traditional gender roles at that time, says Barbara Distel. So, just as they bravely fought until 1945, most of them quietly withdrew to their private lives when the war ended.

In some cases, women benefited from traditional gender roles: the Nazis appeared to take women less seriously. Judges did not want to condemn women to death, Thistle says. Historians have collected examples in which the Gestapo and judges treated women more leniently because they lacked political awareness. Margot Linsert, for instance, in whose shop the International Socialist Combat League met, was let go in 1938 by the Gestapo who said she was an ignorant mother, says Zarusky. But her husband was arrested with the same charges.

The gender roles survived the war. Even a woman like Lina Haag, who personally asked Heinrich Himmler to free her husband Alfred from the concentration camp and published her story in a book after the war, ended up retreating from public life when her husband returned from captivity in 1948. For decades, many women did not talk about what they had done.

Even Centa Herker-Beimler was reserved, remembers Distel. The woman who was not intimidated by the Nazis had been completely dominated by her husband: the two were not yet married when she started taking care of the children from his first marriage, gave up her job in Hamburg and moved back to Munich. She also retreated to private life after the war: she organized sewing parlors and cared for the sick. She was involved in bringing together people persecuted by the Nazi regime — but, as Distel recalls, she did not act as spokesperson. Instead, she stayed on the sidelines and took care of the bookkeeping.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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